Intel wants to know what you’ll be doing in 10 years’ time. The answer, presumably, that the microprocessor manufacturer is hoping for is something powered by one of its chips. The reason it’s so interested in the future though has nothing to do with financial security or investments, it’s about technology.
“When you design these chips it takes 8-10 years,” explains Intel’s futurist, Brian Johnson, as we sit down for a drink in a noisy London cafe.
“We’re working on the 2019/2020 chips right now and, because it takes so long, you have to base it on something. Before it [microprocessor design] was based on ‘make it faster, make it smaller, make it less expensive’ but we started seeing that that wasn’t enough because it was getting so small, so fast and so inexpensive and that was no longer enough to differentiate it.”
It was when Intel’s engineers could no longer base their designs purely upon feats of physics that the company set up its Futures Labs, led by Dr Genevive Bell, where Johnson and his expert colleagues in the fields of anthropology, ethnography and other social sciences use their research to build a model of how people will live in the future so that Intel can build the chips to fit those needs.
“We started to ask ourselves, ‘What do you want to do with this? What will people want from it?’”
“Technology and what people have innovated changes so much that it’s impossible to guess. So, instead, if you base it more on social sciences; society doesn’t change very much, humans don’t change that much. We try to develop a wealth of human insight, and then we look at the technology and then we look at the trends. Intel’s been doing that for 10 years ago.”
What with the product cycles and lead times involved then, it’s only now that the public is first beginning to meet the devices to which Intel has taken this kind of approach in design. It’s small wonder that Johnson is keen to show Pocket-lint his brand new, super-shiny Asus UX31 Zenbook Ultrabook laptop ripped fresh from the cardboard and polystyrene packaging, splinters of which still scatter the floor post-opening frenzy. The Intel Core i7 logo on its chassis is only upstaged by Bang & Olufsen’s promise of specialised audio technology to look forward to. We can see Johnson beaming in the reflection of the Asus’s finger-print textured, mirrored outer lit. He has every right to. Strong as an ox but light as a feather, it’s a real pleasure to have in your hands; as sturdy a piece of industrial engineering as Intel claims its innards are too.
“Look at that edge! It makes me want to go and cut things with it” he jokes taking a sip on his take-out coffee cup, something that Johnson’s only managed the once so far in our meeting amid his animated enthusiasm on the subject of the Future Labs research.
“The systems-on-a-chip that are coming out at then moment, those are based upon what we’re talking about. And these Ultrabooks are based on that too. We’ve been asking ‘What is the ultimate experience that people want to have?’ not the specs, what is the experience?”
If you can’t figure it out from looking at the Ultrabooks themselves - and we’re certainly not telling you that you should be able to - the answer to the question lies within the pages of Johnson’s book Screen Future, the product of his research methods which seem to involve a fair bit of time travelling the globe to talk to different people from all sorts of cultures and walks of life to uncover both the differences and also what ties us all together. “I put my air miles where my mouth is” as he later jokes.
“What if we start to think about all computational devices - laptops, TVs, smartphones, anything - as simply a screen?” he begins.
“And what if we think about the main thing that everyone will do with them as entertainment?”
Naturally, proposing such a premise to a company that’s been focused on powering the workforce for the last 30 years was not so popular when Johnson first mooted it to Intel.
“Then, if you have a screen, a way to interact with it, computational power, long battery, good storage and internet connectivity - those five things - then you have a valuable platform that can give you TV, entertainment, social network or what have you, and then consumers would start to see all these screens as the same. Once that happens, it would be just about the form factor and the method of input - touch, voice, keyboard.”
Intel’s guidelines for its self-drawn-up Ultrabook category fit right into Johnson’s five-point mould - CULV Sandybridge processors for the computational power, flash-based SSDs for the suitably fast storage, long battery life - so where does the super-slim form factor fit in?
“It’s just another screen. But it’s a screen with a keyboard. It affords you the ability to thrown it in your bag. That then allows them to just be part of your day. That’s the experience. The form factor is now keeping up with what you want it to do.”
Aesthetics for Johnson, though, are something that lie at the other end of the equation. He’s been taught just as much about the future by how things look as he as influenced future designs with his own teachings. A recent year-long study of the Steam Punk sub-culture is one that springs to his mind the minute we mention Style Week on Pocket-lint.
“Aesthetics teach me, as a futurist, about what people want from the future,” he explains as he shows us a video trailer of what turned into a documentary after he sat down for a chat with a group of Steampunks in full post-modern vintage get up; goggles, bustles and all.
“Our theory was that, if you look at Steampunks, if they’re changing, playing with and redesigning the past - looking at Victorian age technology but bring information age ideas to it - aren’t they inherently making a different request of the future?”
These have never been Pocket-lint’s thoughts as we’ve marveled at the invention and art of this sub-culture and its penchant for ingenious and beautiful Philip Pullman-esque fantasy contraptions in the shade of brown, but then we’re not the anthropologists here.
“What we discovered is that, despite the vintage look and feel, Steampunk is not anti-technology. It’s actually pro-technology. We found that, if we just replaced the word ‘technology’ in their discussions, you started to learn so much about what people wanted from the future. With Steampunk, you can learn from the aesthetic that people want something different and that’s why they’re tinkering around with it so much. It’s a search.”
According to a series of culture heat maps that Johnson used in his research, Steampunk began to hit a boom time in 2005, coinciding with a hugely important event in the uptake of technology.
“What happened in 2005,” he smiles holding his AT&T Samsung Galaxy S II smartphone to his eyes, “was these.”
“Because of smartphones, we have a very different relationship with our technology than we did before. We can carry it around in our bag, our handbag, our pocket, all the time; so it’s a much deeper part of out lives."
“So what we have is that Steampunk is an indication, in broader culture, of people saying, ‘I want my technology to be more human, to have a sense of humour. This isn’t funny. This is bland.’ and, from a design aspect, I find that fascinating.”
In a world where the hottest smartphones in town are a collection of monolithic black slabs that come in incrementally differing thickness and surface area sizes, Johnson’s theory certainly has plenty of anecdotal support as much as it does from his research. Style and individuality is beginning to creep into the industrial design of our devices but it’s more usually products that are only available in certain non-domestic markets such as the wild differences that you can get when looking at developments in mobile phones in Japan and Korea. But the very fact that it’s coming in is something we should take comfort from, according to Johnson, and proof that the revolution is coming.
“If you have the ability to put computation into any size, the questions become - how do you want to use it and where do you want to use it and what do you want to do with it?"
“As we get more sophisticated and as computational power gets smaller, it will become about aesthetics. When it’s small enough and when it can fit into anything, then people will begin to innovate. Companies will be asking consumers ‘What’s your style?’ just as they’re beginning to with mobile phones."
“And what I love about this most is that, finally, technology is adapting itself to humans - to what we want - instead of us adapting ourselves to what we want to do with those technologies.”